Though Balzac saw himself as a romantic legitimist, his real passion was for secret societies. Indeed, the Comedie Humaine is a hive of secret societies, a puzzle palace given over to l'envers de l'histoire. Cousine Bette is, among other things, a sort of equivalent to The Prince in terms of conspiracy. Once the motive is given – Cousine Bette’s resentment over the theft of her Polish sculptor by her relatives, the Hulots – she turns all her resources to overthrowing that family. She has an expert sense of the vices and virtues that render the Hulots so vulnerable, and she sets to work with her trump card – Valerie Marneffe, whose ass will bring down a little private kingdom - all the while sewing and sewing and sewing.
Naturally, Balzac was attracted to the mythography of conspiracy. Among this company, one of the greatest was Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall.
Hammer-Purgstall is no longer a name to conjure with – I admit! He was an Austrian diplomat during the Napoleonic era, dispatched to Istanbul by the Habsburg court. He traveled in Egypt as well, learned Persian and Arabic, came back and began to publish the manuscripts he’d collected and translated writers like Hafiz – his Divan inspired Goethe’s West-östliche Divan, for instance. He knew Schlegel, he corresponded with the great French orientalists.
And he published a colorful History of the Assassins. It came out in 1818, was translated into English soon afterwards, and insinuated itself – along with the rich, fantastic literature of the illuminati –into the European imaginary. Hammer-Purgstall’s shadow is on Sherlock Holmes stories, on Chesterton’s the Man who was Thursday. It is on Dostoevsky’s the Possessed. He was, of course, just the kind of comrade Balzac had to meet, and Balzac did meet him. He gave Balzac a seal ring from the East.
This is the story Hammer-Purgstall tells about the Assassins in his history.
In the hills of Syria and Persia, the Assassins will build their castles. The castles are attached to pleasure gardens full of flowers and fountains. When the grand master spots some likely lad, he will invite him up to the castle, and ply him with delicious food and drinks. Unbeknownst to the guest, their flavors conceal haschich. The guest will, invariably, fall asleep. The grand master will then have the servants take the guest into the garden. When the guest wakes up, he will be surrounded by the most delicious looking women. There will be music, delicious food, drink, amorous fondling. The youth will be assured that he has, indeed, been transplanted to paradise. Of course, haschich is again hidden in the food and drink. Again, he will fall asleep. He will then be taken into the castle. When he awakens, the grand master will assure him that he has, indeed, received a vision of paradise. All that is left to do is to swear allegiance to the order.
But the order was no simple set of bandits. No, it rested on a philosophy that included elements from Sufiism, Shiism, and folk beliefs. In the assassin view, there are seven speaking prophets with their seven seats were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ismail, the son of Jafer. But there were also seven Mute prophets. They began with Sus, and each had twelve apostles. These Mute prophets created a secret tradition that flowed into the knowledge held by the most illuminated assassins. The illumination of the Ismailis – the Assassins – had nine degrees. The first five took in the prophets. The sixth degree took in pagan knowledge – Plato and Aristotle’s teaching. This was the degree of rationality, but it was ‘very tedious” – according to Hammer-Purgstall. “… Only after the acolyte was wholly penetrated with the wisdom of philosophy was he ready to climb to the seventh degree, where he move from Philosophy to Mysticism. This was the actual All-Oneness doctrine, which the Sufis in their works had constructed. In the eighth degree the positive doctrine of religion would be taken up again, which after all the preceding stages would crumble into dust. Now the student had be enlightened as to the ephemerality of all God’s messengers and prophets, the nothingness of heaven and hell, the indifference of all actions, for which there is neither punishment nor reward, neither in this nor in the other world, and so he was then ready for the nineth and last degree, ripe to become a blind instrument of all the passions of power. To believe nothing and to do all things was in two words the sum of this wisdom, which fundamentally negated all religion and morality, and had no other goal, than enacting ambitious plans through pliant ministers. To honor nothing and to dare all, because one held all to be a deceit, and nothing is not to be permitted, these are the best elements of a devilish politics, which without other goal than the satisfaction of the unquenchable longing for power instead of climbing up towards the highest goals – to throw oneself in the abyss, where they are buried, eating themselves, under the ruins of thrones and alters, under the roar of anarchy, under the ruins of the happiness of the people and under the curse of mankind itself.” (36)
One can interestingly compare this with the murderers celebrated by De Quincy, who were less concerned with universal anarchy than art. However, De Quincy did read Hammer-Purgstall, and he does mention the assassins with some admiration.
Hofmannsthal was well aware of the friendship of Balzac and Hammer-Purgstall. In his dialogue, Over Characters in the Novel and Drama, he stages a dialogue between the two. Hammer-Purgstall is cast as an enthusiast trying to get Balzac to write plays. This leads to some discussion about human beings and novelistic characters. The note struck by Balzac is this: “I have said it – I don’t see humans, I see fates” .
Balzac claims that theater, as he loves it, is embodied by seventeenth century English drama. But he claims he couldn’t write like Shakespeare.
“The reason? The innermost reason? Perhaps I don’t believe that there are characters. Shakespeare believed it. He was a dramatist.
H-P: You don’t believe that there are people? That’s a good one! You have created about six or seven hundred: you’ve put them on their feet! and since then, they exist.
Balzac: I don’t know, whether people can live in drama. Are you aware of what they call “allotropy” in the mineralogical science? The same matter appears twice in the realms of things, in wholly different crystallation forms, wholly unexpected impress [Gepraege]. The dramatic character is an allotropy of the corresponding real one. I have put the event of Lear in Goriot, I put in the chemical process Lear, I am as distant as the sky from the crystallization form Lear. You are, Baron, as all Austrians, a born musician. You are even a learned musicians. Let me tell you, that the characters in a drama are nothing other than contrapuntal necessity. The dramatic character is a narrowing of the real one. What really enchants me, is just his breadth.”
Well, enough for now.